Kathryn Cook (b.1979) is a freelance photographer represented by Agence VU’ and Prospekt Fotografi in Italy. Kathryn grew up in New Mexico and studied Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Kathryn’s professional career began in 2003 with The Associated Press in Panama, where she contributed to reports throughout Latin America. She left the AP to work on personal projects and freelance assignments in South America. She has contributed to various magazines, including Stern, TIME, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

In September 2006, she relocated to Istanbul, Turkey. After working for nearly a year on her project addressing the memory of the Armenian genocide, Kathryn received the 2008 Aftermath Project grant. This work was also recognized by the 2008 Inge Morath award and the Italian Enzo Baldoni Award. In 2009 she participated in the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass.

Kathryn is currently based in Rome, Italy, where she lives with her partner and her 5-month-old daughter, Luna.

Jacky Uwamahoro, 22, stirs her tea by candlelight at home in the Kinyinya genocide survivors village in Kigali, Rwanda. Jacky is originally from the town of Bisesero, and lost all of her six family members during the 1994 genocide. She was able to travel to the city of Gitarama where she lived in an orphanage for several years. She later found extended family members and moved with them to the survivors village in Kigali. She now lives with her cousins in this village for genocide orphans, which is home to approximately 507 people. The village has no electricity. (Kathryn Cook)

VS: Describe your current work situation and how you got there.

Cook: “I have been a freelance photographer for nearly 5 years and am now represented by Agence Vu’ (France) and Prospekt (Italy). I try to focus on long-term stories which I which I balance with assignments.

How it all began – I studied journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and found photography through 2 elective courses. After a few internships, and a fellowship at the Poynter Institute, I started interning/freelancing at the Miami Herald when Maggie Steber was the DOP. She gave me a chance to continue working there, which I did until I decided to move to Guatemala in 2003 to take some Spanish classes. From there I was hired by the Associated Press to take the post in Panama. I stayed there for almost 2 years and then left my job to pursue a freelance career.”

VS: How important is balancing work and personal life?

Cook: “When I first started my career in Panama I wasn’t interested in balancing a personal life with work because I was too excited to think about it. I was quite ambitious and determined, so I just wanted to focus on work and not much else. But that changed after a couple years. I think I realized that I had nothing to balance my emotions and my energy. I’m inspired by the people in my life, my family, my friends, and my boyfriend… and now my 5-month-old baby. If I don’t have them, I don’t nurture the range of emotions that are normal and natural and it is harder for me to refer to them when I am connecting to people I photograph. So for me, my personal life creates me and molds me as a human being, and then I can carry that into my work.”

VS: How have you managed to do so?

Cook: “It is hard to have relationships when you are on the go all the time. Traveling for work means you leave your best friends, your sisters, your parents, for long stretches of time. But when I am away, I am always in touch. And I try to get home several times a year. Thank god for Skype!

I made a big move a few years ago and decided to move in with my partner in another city, another country. It was the first time I was moving somewhere with a different motivation other than to work. Previously I chose my base based on projects and work. To make this work for me professionally I have just needed to rework my contacts and help my agency promote me from this new place. You kind of rewire yourself – meet new magazines, new editors, new outlets, new ideas.”

Kurds celebrate Nevruz, or the celebration of Spring day, in Diyarbakir, Turkey March 21, 2007. Kurds have long been persecuted by the Turkish government, which refused to allow Kurds to right to express their own language, culture and identity. Only in the last several years have Kurds been allowed to legally speak their language and celebrate traditions without government oppression. (Kathryn Cook)

VS: What best prepared you for working abroad?

Cook: “I think the best preparation was just jumping in. Learn languages, wander around, meet people, get to know yourself and your limits. Learn how to travel light, learn how to travel safely alone – especially as a woman. And love what you are doing. I was forced to learn how to be more patient and flexible, which certainly helped.”

VS: What is your favorite part of working abroad?

Cook: “I love being out of familiar surroundings, and I also love foreign languages. I also know that I’ve learned more about myself and my country from being outside of it. I think that is the point, that I crawl out of my little corner from wherever I’m from and start to erase my preconceptions and prejudices a bit …. purposefully go places I don’t think I’m interested in, because that is where you find surprises.”

VS: Who were you influences and who do you lean on now for support or advice/wisdom?

Cook: “My life influences were first my parents, of course, who always supported me and encouraged me to pursue journalism and photography. After them, I think my photojournalism professor, Kevin Moloney, and the mentors that allowed me to tag along, that helped me get an appointment to see an editor, that took time with me when I was just starting out, that believed in my work – each of them influenced me in some way. Many of my friends who aren’t photographers are the ones I turn to for support and “wisdom”. They keep me grounded. Photographically speaking my influences have been many, a few are Robert Frank, Daido Moriyama, Graciela Iturbide, Trent Parke, Harry Callahan… just to name a few of the many many.”

A young girl stands on the ruin of an Armenian church in Diyarbakir, Turkey. A significant Armenian community once flourished in this southeastern city. (Kathryn Cook)

VS: What advice do you have for students who want to work abroad?

Cook: “If you really know you want to do it, I’d say go for it. It’s fun, its hard, its frustrating, and its the best experience you will ever have, even if you don’t succeed in a career abroad. Learn the language if you can, and pick a place and a story that you are personally interested in. If you have the opportunity, stay in one place (or region) for awhile and get to know it a little more intimately.

But I really do think it is about persistence and a bit of stubbornness and really loving what you do. Save some money, too, before going because it isn’t an easy profession to break in to.”

VS: Where do you see yourself in the future?

Cook: “I think my photography is going through a pretty important change now. Maybe that is to be expected after the birth of my daughter, but as individuals we are always growing and changing our interests, and naturally our photography will do the same. I want to go back to the old processes and printing because I came into photojournalism when the Nikon D1 came out. I had one semester in the darkroom and I think I really missed out. My sources of inspiration are different now, and my sensitivities are changing. So we’ll see what I can do with that.”

VS: Concerning working abroad, what would you do differently now that you didn’t in the past?

Cook: “I’m not sure, that is a hard question because even the mistakes I made in the past were necessary.”

VS: How important is it to have a sense of community/family within photojournalism?

Cook: “Many of the people that I met in school, at my internships, and throughout my professional career are still my best friends. They know me and my work and have watched it develop. They are your references and you depend on each other for support. Also, when one travels so much, it is really great to meet up with old friends all around the world. You feel a little more at home in the middle of nowhere just because of the familiar company. I was working in the Congo just for a few days and had dinner with 2 great friends, and then went back to Kigali, Rwanda and by chance bumped into another friend at a cafe unexpectedly. So I guess your community grows as you do, and it is really nice to reconnect like that.”

A horse wanders through a meadow outside of the formerly Armenian town of Arapgir, Turkey. (Kathryn Cook)

This is the sixth segment in a series on international photography.

To view the profile on Michael Rubenstein, go here.

To view the profile on Kevin German, go here.

To view the profile on Dominic Nahr, go here.

To view the profile on Andrew Henderson, go here.

To view the profile on M. Scott Brauer, go here.